How and Why I Went to Grad School

The shortest answer is that I went to grad school because the best job I could get after graduating from college in 2004 was telemarketer.

The “right answer” is that I talked to a lot of people who had the jobs I wanted — at that time, director/teacher roles at youth theaters — and they all said I wouldn’t be taken seriously until I got my MFA.

The secret answer is that I hadn’t gotten a real chance to study theater in undergrad, and I wanted to make up for it.

And the super-secret answer that I ended up turning into a joke is that I wanted to beat the final boss. I had been playing the Education Game my entire life, and I wanted to see what was on the last level.

I spent a lot of time, in the year between undergrad and grad school, reading about the process. This was mostly work done online, often while I was sitting at a reception desk at one of my many temp jobs. I learned about what grad schools wanted from prospective students, and I also learned what I should want from grad school.

Specifically: I should want a full ride. If they weren’t offering me tuition and a stipend, I shouldn’t go. Something about a cash cow.

So that made the process relatively easy for me, and, in many ways, familiar. I had already done the “power through standardized tests and write heartfelt application essays” thing before, and I had also done the “sort schools by full ride scholarships before you fall in love with any campuses” thing.

I also focused my search on schools with a teaching focus, since I decided my Post-Grad School Career Plan would be to become either a college professor, a private school teacher, or a full-time instructor at a well-funded youth theater. (I was covering all my bases here, since I knew that the academic job market was not super great — but I also knew that if I didn’t pick some kind of career goal and start focusing on it, I’d be stuck in the telemarket.)

And then I tossed in one application to one of those big famous schools where they talk about Making Great Art instead of Becoming a Good Teacher-Artist, just to see what happened.

I got in to three schools, including the big famous one. It came down to deciding whether to accept the school that was offering the full ride plus stipend, or the school that was offering the chance to meld with the minds of art but also asking me to throw in something like $25,000/semester for the privilege.

It wasn’t a hard decision, but I would love to see the parallel universe in which I chose student loans and the famous school instead. Would I now be a Tony-award-winning theater director? Or would they have sat me down, halfway through the process, and said “we’re not sure you have what it takes?” That’s what my actual graduate program told me, and given that I am currently writing words for the internet instead of doing theater, they were probably right. (Although I also had a supporting role in an original musical last year, so life contains multitudes. As it should.)

To other Billfolders who did the grad school thing: what was your primary motivation for going to grad school, and did you weigh the financial side of grad school as heavily as I did?

This story is part of The Billfold’s College Month.

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